Small ball works for 5-0 Hopkins

College football: The Blue Jays' size isn't going to make any team quake, but their speed and all-for-one spirit have them standing tall.

October 11, 2003|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

When the Johns Hopkins football team sends out its tri-captains for the pre-game coin toss, opposing teams can be forgiven for getting a false sense of security about what's going to happen over the next 2 1/2 to three hours.

Representing the Blue Jays this season are 205-pound nose guard Paul Smith, 185-pound linebacker Paul Longo and 170-pound kick returner Ben Stopper, all them 5 feet 9 or shorter.

That is hardly a trio designed to inspire trepidation in the hearts of opponents, especially not when their captains are hulking linemen.

"Altogether, they don't even weigh 600 pounds," said Hopkins' leading runner, Adam Cook.

"We have the shortest captains in the country," Longo added.

Said Smith: "I'm sure the other team looks at us and laughs and gets excited. With our team, it's kind of an inside job. But we don't look at ourselves as negatives."

The Hopkins squad's leaders are merely symbols of the adage that good things come in small packages. To underestimate the 2003 Blue Jays has been a grievous mistake.

"We've got smaller guys, but they're playing extremely well," said coach Jim Margraff. "We're as fast as we've ever been."

Heading into today's Centennial Conference matchup with Franklin & Marshall at Homewood Field, Hopkins is 5-0 with a school-record nine-game winning streak stretching back to last autumn.

The Blue Jays have shut out three straight opponents for the first time since 1959 and are ranked 19th in the American Football Coaches Association Division III poll, marking their first appearance ever in the top 20.

Five teams have managed a grand total of nine points against a Blue Jays defense that barely averages 200 pounds per man, with the other seven points the team has allowed resulting from a fumble recovery by the rival defense.

The one touchdown drive against the Blue Jays covered all of 19 yards.

Smith is a prime example of ability in an undersized frame. "He has I-A talent in a Division III body," said the coach. "He has the strength; he's just small."

Hopkins leads the league in virtually every defensive category and stands first nationally in scoring defense (3.2 points a game) and pass efficiency defense and fifth in total defense.

"We know that the other team isn't going to score a lot," said Cook, the second-leading Centennial rusher (101.6 yards per game). "We know if we can put in a couple [touchdowns], the defense will take care of the rest."

"Our strength is our defense," said quarterback George Merrell, who - when not nursing an injury - has compiled a 7-0 record as a starter since the beginning of last season. "They're not letting anything get to them. They're really running to the ball, getting after it."

The attack, whether under the direction of senior Merrell or sophomore Zah DiIonno, has been nearly as efficient. Hopkins is the only Centennial team averaging more than 175 yards a game both running and passing and ranks second in the league in scoring.

Hopkins knows something about success. The team shared the Centennial championship with Muhlenberg and McDaniel in 2002 - its first conference crown - went 9-2 overall and edged host Frostburg State, 24-21, in the Eastern College Athletic Conference Southwest title game in its first postseason appearance.

"Winning that playoff game was more important than people believe," Smith said. "The repercussions helped us all around. Last year was big for `firsts,' and it laid the groundwork."

"We've built on last year," said Margraff. "Guys came back a little more confident."

Not that there wasn't some reconstruction necessary. The offensive line lost four starters, including All-Centennial picks Leif Glynn and Ken Kotibos, and senior Zack Kail was knocked out early this season by a knee injury. The defense lost all-league picks Pat Doyle and Mike Little.

But a strong nucleus remained, including the top two quarterbacks, top two rushers, top six pass catchers and three of the top four tacklers. Freshman Anthony Triplin (Gilman) has helped increase the speed of the receiving corps.

The biggest secrets to Hopkins' success, though, are that no one is considered a star and the newcomers have stepped in smoothly, especially freshman offensive linemen Pat Healey and Phil Dixon.

The team is two-deep at virtually every position, and there is a remarkable one-for-all, all-for-one philosophy.

Smith said, "It doesn't hurt" that the Blue Jays are a smart team that absorbs assignments quickly, "although book smarts and football smarts are two separate things."

He and Longo are both District II Academic All-Americans, and the roster is loaded with players specializing in tough majors like pre-med or economics.

Since there are no scholarships and little limelight in Division III, the majority of the players chose Hopkins for its academic value. They play football because they love to play.

"As tough as it is here, those two hours they spend on the football field have to be their best two of the day," Margraff said.

"Football is kind of a mini-vacation," Smith said. "It's highly demanding here, especially if you're in sports."

"We have trust and confidence in one another," Longo said. "We know if we do the job individually that collectively we can shut down the opposing team. We're very confident in what we can do."

"We have a lot of guys who can play several positions," Smith said. "It doesn't matter who starts and everyone gets a break. We're all riding the same wagon and our coaches keep everyone feeling important to the team."

"Our coaches get us prepared and we expect to execute and to win," Merrell said.

"What has been done is not our concern. We have to be ready every day and take every game like it's for the conference championship," Longo said.

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